I am very pleased to discuss this issue in this House today and I am sure that all Senators will contribute in a constructive way to this important matter. The debate allows me to describe, in some detail, the approach taken by the Government in controlling and eradicating BSE, to ensuring that the health of consumers is protected and assuring the quality and safety of our beef. It also provides me with the opportunity to address public concerns in relation to BSE arising from recent events in Europe where a number of issues, including the higher number of cases of the disease in France, the recent confirmation of cases in Spain and Germany and unilateral actions by some countries, have seriously affected consumer confidence in these and other countries. Furthermore, it gives me the opportunity to outline the measures being taken at EU level to deal with this issue.
Senators will be aware that BSE was identified as a disease in cattle when it was first reported in the UK in November 1986. The first case of BSE here was confirmed in January 1989. In that year, a total of 15 cases were confirmed and for the next six years, the number of cases remained at between 14 and 19 per year. From 1996, the number of cases increased and for this year to date, the total number of cases stands at 126 with three further cases detected under the programmes of testing animals from depopulated herds.
Notwithstanding the higher numbers this year, I am confident that the comprehensive range of measures we have in place is proving effective. In the first instance, the overall incidence of BSE continues to be extremely low with a total of 561 cases since 1989 in a cattle population in excess of 7.5 million each year. This compares with a total of more than 177,000 in the UK and a peak of more than 37,000 confirmed cases in 1992 alone in a cattle population of 12 million. To put our position into perspective, the disease incidence here represents 0.0012% of our total cattle population.
The higher number of cases here this year was foreseen in the recent report of the European Union's scientific committee which predicted a temporary increase in numbers for the next couple of years from animals infected prior to the measures introduced in 1996 and 1997 taking full effect. That committee also concluded that the Irish system was optimally stable from 1998, meaning that the measures in place since then prevent the agent of BSE from reinfecting cattle.
Most experts agree that, notwithstanding the temporary increase in the numbers of cases, the increasing age profile of BSE positive animals detected is of more significance. To date, no animals born after 1996 have been detected with BSE, and an ever increasing proportion of infected animals are six years of age or older. This supports the scientific steering committee's conclusion that the Irish control system is optimally stable, and we have the various control measures in place to protect consumers.
From the earliest stages, we have had an extensive range of surveillance and control measures to deal with BSE and these were very significantly revamped in 1996 and 1997 in the aftermath of the announcement of the possible link between BSE and the new variant CJD. The Irish control and eradication system is among the most comprehensive in the world.
These controls which operate at a number of levels have been widely publicised and include the culling and destruction of all herd and birth cohorts of animals infected with BSE; the removal and destruction of SRMs from all bovine and ovine animals and a comprehensive and effective range of measures which ensures that ruminants could not be exposed to rations containing meat and bonemeal.
In addition, all cattle presented for slaughter at meat factories are subjected to an ante-mortem inspection by veterinary officials of my Department. Animals showing signs of ill health which give rise to a suspicion that they may be affected by BSE are returned to the farm, put down and tested for BSE. All casualty and emergency cattle presented for slaughter are, in any event, rapid tested for the disease and carcasses are retained until a test result is received showing that BSE is not present. I will outline later the further measure we will be taking in the light of the conclusions of the Agriculture Council earlier this week.
The events of recent weeks in Europe which gave rise to unilateral actions by France, Spain, Austria, Italy and Germany are symptomatic of the tremendous political pressure being brought to bear in member states to introduce measures which they see as necessary to reassure their consumers. It must be remembered that these concerns were not based on any new information or scientific developments as regards BSE or CJD but rather on a desire to demonstrate that actions were being taken.
It was critical, in the light of these events, that the Council of Ministers should move quickly to re-establish a Community approach to dealing with BSE by adopting a series of supplementary measures to help to restore consumer confidence in beef. In the first instance, the Council met for 17 hours on 20 and 21 November, following which it issued a statement emphasising the wide range of measures already in place to control BSE and noted the importance of effective implementation of these measures. The Council welcomed the Commission's proposal to extend rapid screening tests for cattle at risk and to extend it to categories of cattle aged upwards of 30 months.
The Council also considered the national measures adopted by a number of member states. It was agreed that these would be evaluated by the EU Scientific Steering Committee and a decision would be taken by 30 November either on their admissibility or a further strengthening of Community measures.
The Council reconvened on 4 December to consider further Commission proposals which included the following: a temporary ban on the feeding of meat and bonemeal to all farm animals, a requirement that all animals over 30 months are tested for BSE, a requirement that the current list of specified risk materials be expanded to include the entire intestine of bovines of all ages, a "purchase for destruction" scheme to remove from the food chain all cattle over 30 months which have not been tested for BSE, a flexible handling of intervention to address the fall in producer prices, raising the advances for beef premia from 60% to 80% and requiring the testing from 1 January 2001 of all "at risk" animals from 1 July 2001 for all animals over 30 months.
We have consistently stated that we believe the correct approach to managing this situation is to adopt an EU-wide, science-based approach. This is preferable to and certainly more effective than sporadic, un-coordinated, unilateral actions by individual countries on, at best, dubious scientific grounds. On that basis, we welcomed the pro posals while seeking to ensure our particular concerns were addressed.
At Monday's meeting and following prolonged and intense negotiations, the Council reached a series of conclusions which I believe are critical to protecting public health and restoring consumer confidence in beef at EU and other levels. The conclusions also provided for the introduction of support for the beef market. They covered a wide range of issues among which were the extension of the ban on the use of meat and bonemeal in feed for cattle and sheep to all animal feed on a temporary basis, agreement on a framework for the lifting of national measures by certain member states, agreement to the Commission decision for a rapid BSE detection test for bovine animals over 30 months and the need for Community funds for financing tests, animals over 30 months can go to the food chain only if tested.
The Council noted the proposal to carry out purchases for the destruction of livestock over 30 months in order to provide an alternative outlet for such animals. The compensation payment to producers for such animals would take account of the different types of animals and markets and the measure will attract 70% financing from the European Union and 30% from the national government. The Council also decided that it is essential to introduce intervention, the details of which will be decided at the beef management committee on 12 December 2000. The Council took the view that beef producers are likely to be adversely affected by the market situation and called on the Commission to report on the situation and to make proposals to the Council which undertook to act on these as a matter of urgency. The Council called on the Commission to examine the question of alternative proteins for farm animals and to bring forward any appropriate proposals.
Bearing in mind the divergence of views among Ministers, it was essential that this particular Council reached a successful conclusion and that the full range of issues which had arisen from the most recent BSE crisis were adequately addressed. In my view, the agreement provides an improved framework for protecting human and animal health and restoring consumer confidence.
We now need to finalise the arrangements at EU level and to proceed with implementation of what is agreed. The Minister has already announced his intention to introduce an expanded testing regime at the earliest possible date before the EU do so. There are various logistical and operational aspects to be addressed in putting a major testing programme in place and I am hopeful that these and the financial aspects can be finalised quickly.
As regards the ban on meat and bonemeal in all animal feed, I should clarify the position on this aspect. For many years, we have had a comprehensive range of controls in place to ensure that ruminant animals in Ireland do not have access to feeds containing meat and bonemeal. One of the facts to emerge from recent events in Europe is the difficulty that some member states have had in relation to the implementation of their meat and bonemeal controls. This relates largely to their failure to eliminate the possibility of cross contamination of ruminant feeds in feed mills which were incorporating meat and bonemeal into feed for pigs while at the same time manufacturing ruminant feeds.
In Ireland, meat and bonemeal has been subject to stringent controls both in terms of its production and its use. These controls have been inspected by a range of external bodies, including the FVO and veterinary services of countries to whom we export beef products, all of whom have deemed them to be satisfactory.
As regards production, the controls required that the material used to make the meal meets certain standards and excluded all risk organs known as specified risk materials, SRMs, and that the product was manufactured to approved scientific standards based on time temperature parameters – heating to 133ºC at 3 bar pressure for 20 minutes.
Full-time Department staff have been based in rendering plants and a series of mission visits by the EU Food and Veterinary Office indicated satisfaction with Irish BSE controls, including those on meat and bonemeal.
Neither the EU Scientific Committee nor the FSAI's BSE sub-committee has recommended a ban on the use of meat and bonemeal for non-ruminant feed. However, and in view of the difficulties being experienced in many other member states which do not have comparable controls to ours and the central role played by the product in the wider BSE issue, the Commission proposed and the Council accepted that meat and bonemeal should be banned from all farm animal feed for six months.
The Minister voted at the Council for this proposal, which will apply across the European Union. However, the difficulties in implementing the proposal here should not be underestimated. Heretofore, some 140,000 tonnes of commercial meat and bonemeal are produced each year. In the short term, animal waste will have to be processed and stored at a significant cost and the policy represents a major potential risk to the environment. This reinforces my view that we need urgently to put in place arrangements for ultimately disposing in Ireland of all BSE material and other animal wastes. In effect, this means thermal treatment facilities of some sort. Without such facilities, we will soon face environmental and waste management problems of an unprecedented scale.
As the Minister said last week, it is nonsensical to expect that we can have the economic and the social benefits of a multi-million pound livestock industry without having suitable arrangements for dealing with the animal waste generated by such an industry. We are the only country in Europe without such facilities. I was heartened by the contributions on this issue from all parties in the Dáil last week. At face value, these suggest that all now accept that incineration facilities are essential. I only hope that this consensus will continue to apply at local level when proposals to deal with this issue are brought forward. One often finds that one is for it nationally but not locally.